The Vasa Trilogy, by August Strindberg

Strindberg wrote a whole lot of historical plays, none of which I imagine are ever performed in this country – and which are pretty rare in terms of print editions. As a confessed follower of the Shakespearean historical play, perhaps this failing can best be understood in terms of his not following one particular aspect of Shakespeare’s attitude to history: the great man’s complete lack of concern for historical accuracy. For Shakespeare took what I consider to be the correct artistic attitude to history: if historical facts get in the way of your artistic vision, then ignore them. Whereas Strindberg unfortunately has done his research, as the copious notes in my edition which seek to explain Swedish history and all the many odd references Strindberg makes to it serve to explain.

Could you understand these plays without these notes? – In the main, I suppose, yes. So long as you understand something about the reformation, you can probably just accept the course of Swedish history as immaterial background detail – though Strindberg certainly doesn’t intend it in this way; it’s clear Strindberg is very interested in Swedish history and that this is in part what these plays are about.

Erik XIV is the last of the Vasa trilogy – following Master Olof and Gustav Vasa – which chart the period of the reformation in Sweden which coincided with Gustav Vasa’s restoration of Swedish sovereignty from the hands of the Danes(? I forget now) and the Hanseatic League. But while an elucidation and commentary on this period of history is a part of what the plays are about (indeed, Strindberg seems to be intent upon a serious revisionist interpretation of events), Strindberg is also concerned with more general issues: a) that old Shakespearean chestnut, the correct (or should we say, successful) way for a king to act, or I suppose for anyone to wield power over anyone else; and b) a general uncertainty about things.

To take the three title characters in these plays: Master Olof is the fundamentalist, the protestant reformer who wishes to sweep away everything that was before or which he finds he disagrees with; he, in turn, is kept in check by Gustav Vasa, the essence of realpolitick who understands you cannot govern a country in such a manner but must make compromises, appreciate other people’s points of view; while Erik XIV, his son, is the weak king, who cannot govern.

Olof then is an essence of certitude (at least, if I am not foisting this on him in retrospect), whereas both Gustav Vasa and Erik XIV, the good and bad kings alike, are riven by a lack of certitude about their action: they do not know if they are doing the right things, or if those things are going to achieve what they wish. Gustav Vasa in particular acts, but while seeming to have conviction in what he does, in the end he cannot judge whether his actions will lead to success or ruin; so that, being a good king, he might as easily be destroyed as his son – acting rightly or in a kingly manner won’t save him; it will just be a matter of chance.

I guess it all chimes in quite well with my incertitude about reviewing books of late, including whatever it is I’m trying to say in this review, and why this review’s so badly constructed and incoherent.

In the great divide between Ibsen and Strindberg, I find myself very much a Strindberg man: Ibsen’s plays to me always seem too contrived, too constructed, too rational; whereas Strindberg’s vision is messier, more inexplicable and concerned with emotion; – a bit perhaps like the contrast between Addison and Shakespeare. – It’s a long time since I’d read any of Strindberg’s plays; I intend now to read a lot more.

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